Why are these so few strikes? When will there be more?

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There was a time when I, and many of my friends, believed that socialism would come about principally through a continuous process of trade union radicalisation with small, sectional strikes leading to larger, industry-wide ones, and then national strikes. Workplace struggles would become successively more common, and more successful. Ultimately, the workers would finally stream out of the factories to take over the whole world.

For much of the past 30 years, the continuing holding of that belief has involved a certain denial of reality. Every small strike that took place I personally welcomed as the start of a generalised upturn – hoping there would be a direct route from a single strike to the mass strike and then to the revolution. It was not just a matter of reading too much into short, localised disputes. I remember, 25 years ago, being much comforted by a talk given to a set of statistics which appeared to show that the growing tendency for jobs to become more precarious was in certain ways limited. It seemed from the figures that young workers were speeding through a series of temporary or part-time contracts before settling on fixed-term, permanent jobs at around 30, and then sticking to them with no less determination than all the generations that had preceded them. The interpretation of the figures may or may not have been correct, then or now – that is not my point – what I remember rather is the physical sense of relief I felt in my heart and lungs at encountering a serious explanation which reaffirmed my existing beliefs. This was not a healthy state to be in…

The lack of strikes matters not just if class struggle is seen in offensive terms, but also if it you follow its defensive aspect. Every government of the past fifty years has attempted to attack some aspect of the welfare state – when they have been defeated, it has usually been because a group of workers formed an alliance to protect (eg) abortion rights (in 1979). When strikes are low, it makes it harder to organise effective resistance.

When mass strikes did not happen, the challenge became to establish a different sort of optimism – a more guarded sense of hope, a surface caution beneath which there lurked a willingness to discard everything when necessary in the hope of being part of the single moment at which the world would turn. I think Daniel Bensaid had something similar in mind when speaking of revolutionary “impatience”: a fusion of optimism and seeming disdain in which the former was always waiting to subordinate the latter.

There is something of the same spirit in a recent article by Simon Joyce, which explains in compelling detail how mistaken a 30 year perspective of imminent mass strikes has been. He writes: “the current low level of strikes is unprecedented in British history. Official records of strikes in the UK have been kept since 1893 and record numerous ups and downs, periods of calm and sudden upsurges. Seen in this perspective, the last 20 years are exceptional. Never before has a low-strike period lasted so long.”

He goes on to insist that the present system of low strikes is stable: “once in place, institutional arrangements for conducting relations between unions and employers tend to be fairly robust and are only altered in ‘times of great crisis’. It is likely that it will take some type of wider social or political crisis significantly to upset the current institutional arrangements”. In so arguing, Joyce is undoubtedly right. I am sure some readers will disagree with him, even if they do not say so in public. A tendency could not change its 30-year perspective without some disagreement as to the new approach to take. But the people who disagree with him are projecting their wishes onto reality rather than engaging with the world in which they live.

Where I think there is space for further discussion is in Joyce’s explanations for the decline in strike figures since 1991. First, a large part of Joyce’s analysis is given over to the package of employment law changes which came in between the Heath and Thatcher governments (under Heath, the right to take an unfair dismissal claim to the then industrial tribunals, under Thatcher the anti-union laws, especially the balloting requirement for strikes).

These are part of the picture, but the relationship between law and society is subtle, and I would be critical of anyone who argued, for example, simply that “more law” must mean “fewer strikes”. (Or conversely, that the retreat of law from industrial relations, represented by the decline in ET figures since fees were introduced recently, will – by itself – make strikes more likely).

In an old book, I once set out the sociologists’ concept of “juridification”, ie the process where disputes which are seen as fundamentally non-legal and are resolved without litigation become things which are dealt with in the courts. Juridification implies its opposite, “de-juridification”, i.e. when things which were once treated as a legal question stop being so. The point of invoking either concept is that the last 150 years of workplace history in Britain gives examples of both dynamics, and in particular of occasions when a big opening up of legal opportunities for unions or for workers has not resulted in juridification. EG on both sides of the 1914-1918 war the ruling class and the state made serious efforts at legalising industrial relations – by giving unions incentives to fight battles in court. But there was no meaningful take-up of these opportunities and strikes remained ubiquitous.

Undoubtedly the Coalition has engaged in a systematic campaign of de-juridification. In an early draft of the same book, before the Coalition government had even been elected, I speculated as to how the Tories might implement what were then New Labour’s vaguer proposals for dejuridification and joked in a bitter spirit that what would be needed would be a system of criminal penalties for those who dared to bring tribunal claims – say, a £500 fine for anyone who took one case to a Tribunal, and jail terms for those who brought a second. Of course, politics turned out even worse than my satire, in that the fine for claimants (the “fee”) has been set at nearly three times higher than the level had guessed.

After decades of individual employment rights, it is almost certain that the dejuridification of dismissal rights will not result in a simple process whereby unions simply take up dismissals and strike over them, as if the entire preceding period of 40 years had simply not happened. Instead, what we are actually seeing is a very clear process by which unions are trying to make the best of what is left of the old Tribunal system – so while the headline figures for the decline in Tribunal claims is very high, this is masked by a series of attempts by unions to keep on going as if nothing had happened. These tactics of “making do” including lobbying Labour and the SNP for a reversal of fees; and a judicial review brought by UNISON (so far unsuccessful at 3 court hearings) to declare fees unlawful. Most significantly of all, unions have so far largely paid the fees on their members’ behalf, with the result that despite the very sharp feel in overall Tribunal cases, it seems that the number of cases brought by unions is holding up at more or less the levels they were before. If that process continues, as on my prediction it will (assuming Labour does not simply come back in and abolish fees), it could have all sorts of further unintended consequences. It could for example make union membership significantly more attractive than it has been to non-members in organised workplaces; since the union will subsidise a tribunal hearing which members could never afford themselves. It would also operate a vast cost on unions, who would have to pay thousands of tribunal fees and millions of pounds a year. What we are not seeing – yet – is any process of unions striking over cases that they would a year ago it would have been economically wiser to take to Tribunal. I do not think that will happen without other, larger changes in the relationship between workers and employers in the workplace.

Joyce is right that the anti-union laws have placed an additional pressure on the bureaucracy to police its own members. This is almost the one place where I think it is useful to speak of the memory of the 1980s, which is felt much more keenly within this level than in the typical workplace. Hundreds of senior trade unionists remember the sequestration of the once-massive funds of the miners’ union, and this memory places an enormous pressure on the individual bureaucrat not to mismanage a ballot where, it is assumed, the entire resources of the whole union could be at stake.

But this is not the only problem of the anti-union laws: they are costly, they are slow (amounting to, in effect, a statutory one-month cooling down period between the original decision to strike and any outcome), and they are intended to prevent the very strikes that were most effective in the 1950s, and 1960s, ie localised, rapid strikes by specific sections of workers about smaller issues as well as large ones.

I agree with Joyce that the left needs to give a much larger commitment to campaigns for the repeal of the anti-union laws, but having played a very modest part in one or two of these initiatives, we need to recognise how isolated the interest presently is in repeal – either within the unions themselves or, especially, among committed activists on the left but outside the trade unions. There are good examples on the left in recent years of causes which were isolated to specific groups but have acquired a more general significance – eg Defend the Right to Protest, set up around what once seemed the relatively narrow, immediate issue of the criminalisation of the 2010 students protests – any serious critique of the anti-union laws would rapidly founder if it was just the trade unions with their existing fiefdoms, rivalries and aging activist base.

Joyce makes good points about the link between low inflation and few strikes. Historically, medium-level inflation has been associated with policies of (modest) redistribution from the rich to the working class. We forget on the left just how important low inflation (“monetarism”) was to the early Thatcher governments as a strategy for a more radical kind of class rule. The left in general should be better at exposing this ongoing fixation, which is amongst its other problems also a partial cause of the present stagnation of the European and British economies.

I also think he is right to work into the equation the part played by unemployment. Again, it is a regret that no-one on the left ever seems to sit down and try to calculate or still less publicise how many people in Britain are now unemployed. We have allowed a situation of mass unemployment to be treated as normal which few recent generations would have tolerated.

A further, modest point of disagreement is where Joyce, despite focussing on what he terms “economic factors” resists any idea that the post-1979 economy is in any meaningful extent different from that which preceded it. In particular, he resists the characterisation of the present as a “neoliberal” capitalist economy, as distinct from the post-war state capitalist, welfare state, economy.

To an extent, his own developed argument makes this a meaningless distinction – after all, as soon as you recognise that there are significant dynamics such as low inflation and high unemployment, you are starting to accept that the industrial economy runs on – subtly – different lines from before.

Moreover, if you understand industrial disputes in social activist terms, as Joyce does, then the key issue when workers consider when deciding for or against striking is whether they will win. The “confidence” approach suggests that winning is simply a matter of will, workers with the greatest confidence will take the most radical steps (unofficial rather than official, continuous rather than discontinuous action) and that these will be the most effective. Now, this idea brings certain insights; clearly, to say from the outset that certain forms of strike are impossible is to reduce the choice of protest actions available to potential strikers, and this reduces their prospects of winning. But, equally clearly, among the reasons why strikes have lost in the last 40 years are some economic factors which are primary to and causative of workers’ lack of confidence. Even if we just limit ourselves to Joyce’s two principal economic factors, unemployment and inflation, they serve to discipline workers, unemployment especially, because it changes the calculation as to how much the workers will lose if the action is wholly ineffective and they are all dismissed.

For that reason, I look forward to the historian of the future who can go a little further in addressing the analytical weight to be placed on certain other features of our present economy. For example, Joyce alludes to size of establishment as a factor in the decline in strike levels. Could this have an importance within manufacturing in particular? The 99% fall in the number of strikes in coal since 50 years ago is down to the destruction of jobs in that industry; the 85% fall in the number of strikes in manufacturing over the same period cannot be down simply to the loss of jobs because there are still millions of people working in manufacturing. What has happened though is that there are very few employers, as there were in almost every medium-sized town in Britain just 30 years ago, with several thousand workers all doing relatively similar tasks. To this extent, the capacity for manufacturing workers to feel that they have a power to take on the employers is surely reduced as the size of the workplace is diminished. Could the demise of the giant plants (and therefore the large single-workplace strike) have had an effect in terms of the capacity of workers in one town to see someone else striking a large workplace, to hear about it and want to copy them? Where workplaces are smaller, it surely follows that strikes have less of a rallying effect as physical expressions of the different interests of capital and labour.

Or, to take another example, structural mass unemployment has not served simply to act as a caution for those worried about losing their jobs (what you might characterise as the “reserve army of labour” effect). Additionally, it has had an impact on the nature of the jobs that are being created. I have seen some estimates of job creation since 2008 which suggest that fewer than 5% of new jobs presently being created are full-time, permanent, direct employment. Even if these estimates are hopelessly wrong, and as many as 20% or 40% of new jobs are secure, the picture still remains that for hundreds of thousands of new workers, their industrial reality is not that of the Fordist economy, with secure jobs with long-term prospects.

Portraying some of labour’s difficulties as structural is not to close off the possibility of defeat, but to encourage people to think towards the dynamics of the present crisis which are superficially most obstructive to strikes and yet at the same time capable of challenge.

The issue which I have focussed on in repeated blog posts over the last 18 months is the precariousness of labour both because of its disciplinary aspect and its demobilising potential but also because it seems to me that it gives an incentive to groups of workers to organise. Joyce points to on one group of workers where strike rates have held up relatively well – those engaged in transport. The most successful strikes in history by this section of workers were precisely by groups of people who were precarious and yet wanted greater control over their working lives (carters, dockers…). And now we find ourselves in that same situation again, where the greatest incentive to protest is among groups that are outside what is presently assumed to be the centre of working class life. It seems to me almost certain that when the industrial sociologist looks back from 2035 in our direction, the disputes they will describe with the greatest affection will have something like the same character of those of 125 years ago, with struggle coming from those presently seen as marginal but eager to have the levels of job security which 40 years ago were universal.

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